Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Overthrowing Dictators

The following is an answer to a question I received by email:
What does... Romans 13:1-7 mean? It seems to conflict with our beliefs in freedom and justice.This is not what I expected because it seems to be saying that rebelling against a dictator is wrong. It's like the American Revolution and like overthrowing Saddam Hussein were sinful. So how do we reconcile this with our beliefs in freedom and justice? - Thanks, L.L.
First, it is important to know that wise and godly Christians today and throughout history have not always agreed on this issue, so we need to be humble and understanding of other people's opinions. For example, during the Revolutionary War, many Christians felt that that they should support the Revolution, but many believed that the Bible would not allow them to rebel against their king.

What did Paul mean when he wrote this passage almost 2000 years ago? At the end of Romans 12, Paul explained how Christians should respond to those who hate or persecute - by doing good and blessing. He naturally moved into the topic of how to respond to the government, which at that time was dictatorial and occasionally persecuted Christians. Paul said that the Christian's response to government injustice was not to take up arms against the government or stop paying taxes. Christians, Paul said, should obey the government as much as possible (compare to Romans 12:18). Of course, Christians should not obey the government if it tells us to disobey God (see Acts 4:18-20, for example).

What did Paul do when he was persecuted? He used the legal system to defend himself, but he never advocated violent overthrow of the government, even when he was persecuted. In fact, even after being unfairly imprisoned repeatedly, he only advised that Christians pray for rulers so that Christians could be free of persecution (1 Timothy 2:1-4). The church throughout history has generally followed this advice - when persecuted by their own government, Christians have rarely used force to resist.

This suggests (at the very least) that it should be a very rare event for Christians to ever rebel against their lawful government, although we should not obey the government if it tells us to do something clearly against God's will. We should try to use legal means to change the government as much as possible. On rare occasions, Christians have decided that they must use violence to overthrow an evil government when it is no longer a legitimate government. Since there is so little Scriptural support for such a practice, Christians should be very cautious before ever taking such an approach.

Your question about Iraq is slightly different. Paul told Christians not to rebel against their own government, but the war in Iraq is one government overthrowing another. The Bible does not give clear guidelines on when one government is justified in going to war against another. Many Christians throughout history have followed the "Just War" guidelines of the theologian Augustine. This answer is already too long, so I won't attempt to fully explain Just War (wikipedia has a good introductory article on it). The basic idea is that governments have an obligation to defend their people and to right wrongs; but governments must have just reasons for going to war and just ways of conducting war. Christians today disagree over whether the war in Iraq qualifies as a just war, and over whether there is such a thing as just war.


  1. But Gary, what do YOU think?


  2. OK, you called my bluff. I was pulling the professorial trick of explaining the main views in such a way that no one can tell what I believe. Do you really think I should open that can of worms? :)

  3. Yes. I think you should and wish you would.


  4. OK, three readers (Dave, Keoki, and Rich) have said I should comment on this one. I'll write a bit more about just war and Iraq in some new posts next week.


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